Gone With the Schwinn

July 05th, 2008 | Category: Marginalia, Me

My friend Ben Hiltzheimer once said that riding a motorcycle was a such head-clearing experience because while riding all you could think about was not dying. Riding a fixed-gear bicycle is similarly head-clearing. It’s chess not checkers. Being connected to the bike and its motion feels right in a way that riding bikes with freewheels and brakes never did, but you have to think several moves ahead.

As Sheldon Brown put it,

It takes a bit of practice to become comfortable on a fixed gear. Most cyclists, trying it for the first time, will automatically try to coast once the bike gets up to a certain speed. The bike will not allow this, and it is disconcerting. It takes a couple of weeks of regular riding to unlearn the impulse to coast, and become at ease on a fixed gear.

For those that don’t know, a fixed-gear bike is one that has a single gear that is directly connected to the rear wheel. Whereas a bike equipped with a freewheel or a coaster brake coasts when one stops pedaling, a fixed-gear setup does not. Whether speeding up, cruising along, or slowing down (or trying to stop), the rider is always pedaling. The fixed connection of the gears provides a direct connection between road and legs — by way of wheel, gears, chain, cranks, pedals, and feet (proving cataclysmic to some).

Having ditched my BMX bike when I left Portland (I moved my few belongings via postal service and myself via airplane), I’ve been in need of a new two-wheeled fix. A road bike was the order of the day (I’m an adult now), but growing up on a BMX bike and having ridden a few road bikes here and there recently, I found myself bored of just riding. I wanted more of a challenge, so I decided I’d give this whole fixed-gear thing a try.

Like many fixed-gear projects, this one started with an old specimen. My Moms found a 1972 Schwinn Collegiate at a thrift store for fifteen dollars. It had all of its original parts and accessories and looked like it’d barely been ridden in its thirty-six years.

First, I took off most of the extras (e.g., fenders, chainguard, brakes, etc.) and switched the stock rattrap pedals for a small, BMX platform-style set. I found an old Trek mountain bike someone had dumped and reappropriated its riser bars. Next, I replaced the wheels, which has been the only real expense so far, but you can’t skimp on wheels. These are 700c Weinmann’s with no-name, high-flange hubs and a fourteen-tooth rear sprocket.

I won’t lie and say that going from twenty-inch wheels to 700 centimeter wheels isn’t a major adjustment, but some aspects of the transition have felt quite natural. The quiet of the bike is welcome after the few weeks of having an actual freewheel. I’ve never run one on any of my BMX bikes. I always had a coaster brake or a freecoaster (both of which allow you to coast both ways, quite the opposite of the fixed-gear). The Zen-like attention required to ride this bike is very similar to the one required for flatland moves on a BMX bike.

Aside from a few more minor upgrades (e.g., seat, seatpost clamp, and eventually cranks and pedals), here’s my completed conversion:

Many thanks to Patrick Barber for information and inspiration and Jeff Coleman at The Bike Shop for hooking up parts. If you’re at all curious about the fixed-gear experience, it’s well worth checking out.

Further Posting:


  • Gabi Wan Kenobi said:

    Dude…you rockin no brakes AND flat pedals? You really should have some toe cages to keep your feetsies secure while track-skidding you hipster, fixie douchebag! Seriously, glad yer ridin, but take care of your knees on that thing and do give some consideration to toecages.
    I bet that on my single speed with brakes I could still burn your ass in a sprint you skinny bastard!
    Love, Gabey

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Thanks, Gabe. Out here on the country roads it’s fine. I’ll probably add a front brake for the city, but toe-cages will require a major cognitive paradigm shift. You’ll kill me in a sprint. I’m running 46/14 right now. It feels husky.

    Oh, I replaced my headtube badge today:

    Also, first day out, I lost the left leg of a pair of Dickies and experienced my first pedal strike since I’m like five. Fun.

  • Gabi Wan Kenobi said:

    The little traction knobs on those pedals can turn your silky white shins into “junky shins” in about 3 weeks. I’m rollin 46/18 on my non-fixie and it is occasionally hard work, but I also plan my routes to avoid hills such as Queene Anne. I have my suped-up Surly for that shit (all Centaur Campy groupo and hand-built wheels by yours truly with help from someone who knows what they’re doin).
    If I were anything less than a Jedi Master, I would be jealous of your headtube badge. Did I mention I really dig the green? One of my favorite bike colors.
    Does that thing have vertical or horizontal drops? Hopefully horizontal…

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    It has horizontal drops, and I’m quite intimate with BMX pedals: My shins have been junkies since the early 80s.

  • Gabi Wan Kenobi said:

    I just wanted to dream of them being “silky white” shins, as I am one of your harem, clutching to your masculine legs while you sit in your throne of divinity.

  • Christina said:

    Love the 1979 Muppet Movie reference….one of my favorite lines by Kermit the frog after almost being hit by a steamroller: “Good thing we frogs can hop, otherwise I’d be gone with the schwinn”.

    The bike takes me for a ride in the WABAC machine….my dad used to sell them at the motorcycle shop he worked in when I was a kid.

    Oh, and you’re just a little bit crazy aren’t you? o_O

    Happy Trails!

  • Pumping Irony: Technology and Disconnectivity | Roy Christopher said:

    […] I started riding a fixed-gear bicycle, people often ask me why? What’s the appeal? Well, one of the reasons that fixed-gears are so […]

  • Madeleine said:

    Interesting article. Were did you got all the information from… :)